Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chaps' Dharma Talk - Being Buddhist in the Military (Part 2)

Hello all!
This is a continuation of my Dharma message on being Buddhist and in the US military. This may (or may not) present us with some unique challenges. First would be how to relate to our fellow servicemembers who belong to religions other than Buddhism and who ask us, or challenge us, about our beliefs. Second is how to explain our profession to other Buddhists. Admittedly, for many Buddhists this is a non-issue - we are right to say, why should I have to justify my choice of profession to others? Some of us may have never confronted this issue. However, for others, they have been on the receiving end of puzzlement, sympathy, or outright hostility when revealed that they wear a uniform, as others insist that serving in the armed forces (or even in law enforcement) is not "Right Livelihood." These attitudes may stem from a variety of sources: a belief that Buddhists should live a strictly pacifist life, that Buddhism is an "alternative" to Western traditions, maybe a personal dislike or ignorance of the military institution and its role in American society or even their own unpleasant experiences in the military. I would like to offer some suggestions as to how to address these attitudes if you are confronted by them. (The point is not to angrily confront and say "you're wrong!" but to counter their own confrontation to you as a military member who happens to be Buddhist).

1) Explain your role in the military - The US has had an AVF (All-Volunteer Force) for several decades now, and it is a fact that very few Americans today have had any experience of military service. Hollywood and the news media rarely give any accurate depictions of military life. Very few people even know what a chaplain is (M*A*S*H went off the air 20 years ago)! Emphasize your honorable service, what you do, and that military people are not all gun-crazed thugs, drunks, or morons! These assumptions are still out there! We are the "first line" in defense of our way of life and our Constitutional freedoms, against enemies foreign and domestic, highly disciplined and trained, and under civilian administration, unlike the militaries of many other countries which abuse their people. Just as we find ourselves having to reassure others that Buddhists are "normal" people (well, sometimes!) we also end up additionally having to reassure other Buddhists that military people are not ogres but their fellow practicers, neighbors, etc.

2) Discuss how the Buddha did not prohibit military service - Buddhism is not a "religion" of "thou shalt" and "thou shalt nots." The Eightfold Path is meant as our guide to an honorable way of life, not as commandments. Military life is not for everyone, obviously, just as many other professions may not fit our personal beliefs and desires. No matter what profession or lifestyle we follow, the Buddha advised us to always consider the karmic consequences and be mindful. Others may cite the precept against killing. Taking the life of any living thing (and this included animal, and even insect and plant life, in many cases) was never considered proper, and we should always follow the precepts when we can (just as devout Christians follow their 10 Commandments). Yet the reality was that conflict could not be totally avoided, neither could complete vegetarianism be practiced. Monastics could follow them much easier than laypersons, but even so, we continue to live in samsara where we cannot follow the precepts 100% 24/7. We simply do not live as monastics. The Buddha's Great Compassion (daihi) ultimately envelops us, no matter who we are or what we do.

3) Avoid "dueling scriptures" - I call this the spectacle of people picking and choosing bits of text to justify their arguments. This is a good idea to keep in mind when thinking of the above. People have used Buddhism to justify all sorts of things (just as they do in other religions) by taking the sutras out of context. I don't believe this is effective. What is an authoritative text for one Buddhist may be not so for a Buddhist of another tradition. Also, the Theravada and Mahayana texts were composed over a wide span of time, and do not always concur with each other.

4) Use examples from history - Buddhists taking up arms and defending their country and families is not a recent aberration, but has been a reality throughout the history of Buddhism. Korean monks took up arms to defend their country from Japanese invaders in the late 1500s, and Japanese-American Buddhists were among the toughest fighters of WWII. And of course there were the Shaolin monks who are the most visible representation of "warrior" Buddhists fighting for justice and righteousness.

5) Find a friendly Sangha - If you constantly experience verbal barbs or the cold shoulder because of your profession, it may be best to look for another temple or center to attend. Even if people in your Sangha may not agree with your job personally, that should not affect how they treat you as a fellow Buddhist and as a human being who desires to hear the Buddha-dharma. It will be very difficult to practice in a negative environment. If there is no other Sangha in your area, consider this blog as a welcome Sangha!

6) Learn from others - Buddhism is not the only religion to deal with this issue. Christians, Wiccans, Muslims, and many others wrestle with this issue. It may be that the more liberal spiritual traditions, like the Unitarian Universalists, are particularly concerned with how to confront this problem. Check out Chaplain Pyle's blog on this site. The essay on this Wiccan site,, could practically mirror the dilemna faced by many Buddhists in America. This can also be a source of interfaith dialogue.

Each one of us made a personal decision to serve in the armed forces, so therefore we must also understand our personal relationship with Buddha-dharma in our lives. We may seek guidance from more-educated and experienced teachers, but eventually we alone are responsible for our decisions. We took an oath to serve honorably, therefore let us use Buddha-dharma to guide us along this karmic path! Whatever path we choose, let us be at peace with it.
Namo amida butsu

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Buddhist Military Sangha by Jeanette Shin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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